Journaling for English Learners: The Why and How

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I used to teach a lot of academic writing when I worked in the English department at a university in Busan, South Korea. Most of the writing textbooks, as well as curriculums focus on accuracy in writing. This is not a bad thing certainly because who wants an employee to write a work report in English filled with grammatical inaccuracies?

However, fluency in writing should also be a goal as well. After all, what employer wants someone to spend an hour (waste 50 minutes) writing a simple email that should take 10 minutes.

Journaling Can Improve Writing Fluency

One way to work on fluency in writing is through journaling. I used to dedicate the first 10 minutes of all my writing classes (and sometimes 4-skills English classes) to it. I’d give the students a topic and they’d get to it. I made a rule about not using their phones or a dictionary, but to just focus on writing quickly, without worrying about spelling or grammar.

Here are a few examples of topics I’d use:

  • A favourite memory from childhood
  • What’s your family like?
  • Summer vacation plan
  • A memorable vacation

Let’s get into more details about journaling. What follows is a guest post from Stephanie Schottel at Cup of Tea Language Coaching. 

Thanks for your insights about how to improve English writing fluency!

Journaling: Writing Just for Fun

How do your ESL students feel about English writing? Perhaps for some, writing is a joyous activity, but many learners associate writing with the academic writing they’ve been required to do in intensive ESL classes or for strict teachers in their homeland.

How many of your ESL students come from a background in which they were encouraged to write for fun, just for the pure joy of it—in English or in their native language for that matter? Maybe some, but probably not many.

But learning to write for fun in the form of journaling can be amazingly beneficial to language learners. Not only can it accelerate fluency, it can be a tool that brings more self-awareness to the process of learning English. I’d like to expand on these benefits and offer some fun and creative journaling activities that you can incorporate into your classroom or ESL coaching sessions.


What is Journaling exactly?

Journaling can take many forms. Journaling can be a way to explore feelings or to describe situations and daily events. It can be used to observe the world around you and make connections to your own life. In its simplest form, journaling is writing without any strict guidelines or rules. It’s generally exploratory and not directive. With journaling, the writing doesn’t call for a specific outcome or agenda.

In other words, it’s writing for the sake of writing.

This process of unstructured free-writing tends to go against the grain of the traditional classroom. In most classrooms, teachers might assign a topic and offer an outline for the writing assignment. They might even show examples or models of acceptable finished products.

This type of assignment has its place and its benefits. However, if your goal as a teacher is to promote creativity and cultivate a love of writing in the target language of English, adding journaling as a daily practice can take your ESL students to a new level of skill and confidence.

Here’s why…

Benefits of Journaling

There are a number of reasons why you might consider doing journalling with your students. Here are just a few of them.

1. Journaling can help reveal areas of vocabulary that are weak or missing in a student’s mental database

When we write freely, the truth about our active vocabulary is revealed. Let me give you an example. I’m a language learner myself, and once when I was journaling in German about my day, I figured out that I was missing some basic vocabulary around my daily routine. There were expressions that I thought I knew but discovered I wasn’t exactly sure of. Was “to brush my teeth” reflexive or not? How do I describe “running errands”? What is the word for “mother-in-law”?

These were missing links that I had no idea were missing! It can be humbling but extremely helpful to have these discovery moments. And, they are not prompted by a teacher at all. On the contrary, with journaling it becomes self-evident to the student that he or she needs to do further research on the necessary vocabulary to be clear or make her point effectively.

2. It makes the vocabulary personal, which increases retention

With developments in the science of language learning, and more specifically neuroscience, we now know that making learning personal and relevant to the learner is crucial for learning.

Professor Mary Ann Christison explains: “Second language classroom activities that are meaningful create an ideal learning opportunity for second language students to learn more information in a shorter time, with less effort.”

With journaling, the language is made truly meaningful because the student immediately sees the relevance of a particular word in his or her own life. This activates the brain in a way that memorizing lists of words and definitions simply cannot.

3. Journaling brings multiple skills together

When journaling, students have an opportunity to incorporate everything that they have learned: grammar, vocabulary, and the ability to connect ideas. This engaging, language-producing activity lays the perfect groundwork for learning:

Educator and Neurologist Judy Willis expands on this in her article, The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning:

“The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information. Through writing, students can increase their comfort with and success in understanding complex material, unfamiliar concepts, and subject-specific vocabulary.”

Journaling is very much an active activity—and very different from receptive activities like copying lists and definitions of words or grammar formulas. The brain is at its best when it is creating and building connections.

Journals and learning English

Journaling Activities

Are you ready to give regular journaling with your ESL students and clients a try? Here are a few ideas you can implement:

1. Encourage your students to use their ESL journal like a diary. They may write down their routines and personal observations each day.

2. Students can use their journal as a way to record their goals (for language learning or for other areas of their life) and the specific actions they will use to achieve them.

3. Encourage true freewriting, in which students write about the first thoughts or ideas that come to their mind.

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4. Have students recall an incident or situation that held significance for them.

5. Google “writing prompts” and choose three that you can share with your students. Always offer options if you are giving prompts. Once again, the writing must be personally relevant to the student for it to engage the key components of the learning brain.

As a Teacher, Should I Correct this Work?

In order to make journaling a safe and brain-friendly activity that facilitates real learning, you as a teacher, will need to decide what level of correction you will provide, if any. You may choose to have students self-correct as a supplementary activity after the actual writing is complete. You may choose to correct the journal yourself, although this might raise the student’s affective filter that Krashen and others have discussed for decades.

On the flip side, you can also leave the journaling an uncorrected work—an example of exactly where the student is skill-wise in one moment in time. In this way, these writings will build a body of work that will help the student see his or her progress form themselves.

One Final Suggestion for Journaling…

I suggest that your students use a journal that is aesthetically pleasing and inviting to them. This might seem trivial, but there is nothing that beats the feeling of acquiring a beautiful journal that is filled with blank pages that just calls to be written in. In the same way, writing in a favorite color that your students associate with positive feelings can also inspire them to write in its own subtle way.

The mind is a fascinating tool that is designed to make connections, and if seeing a beautiful journal and a favorite colored pen releases feel good hormones, then you and your students will be more apt to stick with this new habit.

In Conclusion

Through journaling students can see their own strengths, weaknesses, and progress, and this information can help them to take ownership of the language learning process. And, when the student is truly in charge and intrinsically motivated, real leaps in language learning can happen.

Strive to teach this way!

How to Teach Writing to ESL Students

Need more ideas for teaching writing? Check out this short video:


Christison, M. (1999). Applications of Brain-Based Research for Second Language Teaching and Learning: Part 2, TESOL Matters, 9,4.

Willis, J. (2008). Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Improving Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Willis, J. (2012). The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning. 11 July 2011. Edutopia. 11 Jan 2019 accessed.

What do you Think?

Are you an English teacher who teaches writing? Do you get your students to do journaling? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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